Sunday, December 22, 2013

Farther Along

Praise for the Lord #138

Words: Warren's Select Hymns for Christian Worship, 1911
Music: Stamps's & Baxter's Starlit Crown, 1937, arr. J.R. Baxter Jr.

"Farther along" is an interesting example of just how easily a published song can work its way into oral tradition. It has been a popular song for many years, obviously, and is part of the fabric of America's gospel, folk, and country music genres. When a song is this popular, it can become "folk music" even after publication, sometimes even during the life of its author, propagated by word of mouth and stored in the collective memory. And once the link to its origins is lost in this way, it can become nearly impossible to ascertain the truth of the matter in later years.

At least four different men have been credited with writing this song (whether words, or music, or both, is not always clear). None of them is without evidence in his favor, and three of them have descendants today who loyally defend their respective claims. I beg the patience of all these, and assure them that I am not casting doubt on the veracity of anyone living or dead. (Anyone who has done genealogical research will know, however, that veracity and accuracy are not the same thing. I have in mind a supposed eyewitness account of the writing of "Farther along," given by a person who was only one year old when the song first appeared in print.) But for all I know, all four men may have had some hand in the development of this song; it almost seems that this song appeared like Melchizedek, "without mother or father." What I wish to contribute is a review of the evidence, from the earliest and most disinterested sources I can find.

The Paper Trail

Select Hymns for Christian Worship (1911)
This material is in the public domain
The earliest known instance of "Farther along" (or "Further along," originally) is in Select Hymns for Christian Worship and General Gospel Service (Anderson, Ind.: Gospel Trumpet, 1911). (I have seen references to earlier versions from the 1800s, but all of these that I have been able to examine are actually a totally different hymn titled "Tempted and Tried," written by Frances Ridley Havergal.) Zac Thorp, Digital Resources Librarian at Phillips Theological Seminary, has provided a scan of the 1911 version of "Further along", which differs considerably from the Stamps-Baxter version used in most hymnals today. The lyrics, which were published without any music, are simply attributed, "arr. B.E.W." (Barney E. Warren, one of the hymnal's editors).

Barney Elliott Warren was a minister of the Church of God fellowship headquartered in Anderson, Indiana (Cyberhymnal), and Select Hymns was published by that group's flagship journal, Gospel Trumpet. If one of the candidates for authorship proved to have been a minister in that fellowship, that would add a little circumstantial evidence to his claim. But unfortunately, though the Church of God (Anderson) is quite distinct historically and doctrinally from the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) and other Holiness groups, census takers and newspaper reporters are not always so careful of such distinctions. Three of the four men who may have been involved in writing the song are identified at some point simply as "Holiness preachers," which is an interesting coincidence but not specific enough to give one more credence than another.

The next instance of the song is in Harmonic Chimes (Morristown, Tenn.: Harmonic Pub. Co., 1916). According to the page for this songbook, W. B. Stevens is given credit for the lyrics alongside Warren. The only copy of this hymnal listed in OCLC's WorldCat is held by Brown University, but is currently inaccessible because of ongoing renovations to the library building that houses special collections. It should be available again in the fall of 2014, and I hope then to find what evidence it does or does not give about the authorship question. I have explored the feasibility of an illegal entry into the Hay Library (in the style of Mission: Impossible) but have concluded that I had better just wait.

"Farther along" appears under the title "We'll know all about it" in Eureka Sacred Carols (Mena, Ark.: Eureka Music Co., 1921), which I was able to examine at the Bowld Music Library of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This version credits the words and melody to a W.E. Lindsay. The music in this version is arranged by G.C. Adams, one of the editors of the hymnal. The lyrics are nearly identical to those in the 1911 version. The music (discussed more fully below) is distinct from the Stamps-Baxter version, but still close enough that there is almost certainly some relationship between the two.

Eureka Sacred Carols (1921)
This material is in the public domain.

The version of "Farther along" found in most modern hymnals, however, first appeared in the Stamps-Baxter publication Starlit Crown in 1937. A WorldCat record for this book shows that the attribution was simply to the "Burnette Sisters." Another 1937 Stamps-Baxter songbook, Favorite Radio Songs, remarks, "As sung by the Burnette Sisters." The song's inclusion in Favorite Radio Songs is particularly telling, since the contents of that book were selected by asking listeners of Dallas station KRLD to send in their 10 favorite radio gospel songs (Mason 275). The attribution to the Burnette Sisters (whom I have not been able to identify) most likely reflected the popularity that the song gained through radio performances. From the 1938 Gospel Quartets onward, however, Stamps-Baxter usually attributed the words and music to W.B. Stevens, with the music arranged by J.R. Baxter, Jr. (The latter two books were examined at the Southwestern Baptist music library.)

William B. Stevens: Missouri Tent Preacher

Most hymnals for the last half-century have followed the Stamps-Baxter attribution to William B. Stevens (b. 1862-d. after 1940), a Church of God preacher in Schuyler County, Missouri (U.S. Census 1930). If anyone had a motivation to write such a song, it was Stevens; he was a truly Job-like figure who outlived all six of his children, many of them dying in childhood (Findagrave). According to Davidson's biographical sketch of Stevens, he was a prolific songwriter and even published a few songbooks (Davidson, repr. Schuyler Co. Times). In the preface of the compilation, The Best of W.B. Stevens, Richard E. Payne states that his wife's grandparents, John D. and Sylvia Hodges Speak, sang in a quartet with Stevens; an additional note by the late Emma Perkins Johnson, a longtime resident of the area, recalled Stevens sometimes serving as songleader for gospel meetings instead of minister.

If Stevens was the songwriter, he received very little benefit from such a popular song--nor did any of the other potential claimants. Stevens claimed to have learned of his song's success in a rather unexpected fashion, years after it was written. The story was related by J.R. Barkley in the Moulton, Iowa Weekly Tribune, 5 May 1938, page 2:
Not long ago [Stevens] was listening to the singing of a fine religious quartet, at the station at Del Rio, Texas, when he heard one of his songs that he had composed years ago. He wrote the Stamps quartet which was singing it and told them of publishing it. The Stamps Brothers own and publish a musical paper at Dallas, Texas. They wrote him and asked him to send them a brief sketch of his life, which he did. Finding that he was without a stated income they mentioned it on the air, and a collection of over $150.00 was raised and sent to him with more to follow. This song was one of the most popular songs ever sung over the station and was entitled, "Farther Along." He said he was sitting at the organ running his fingers aimlessly over the keys. His luck had been against him and he was feeling blue, but somehow he struck a chord which came right out of the the organ like the "Lost Chord" of Sir Arthur Sullivan. Who knows but what it might have been the same lost chord which Sir Arthur never found. Who knows that music may not be inspired from the spirit world. Any way he did not lose it this time but wrote it down, and put his thoughts into meter in "Farther Along."
The claim of W.B. Stevens seems to be considerably helped by the discovery of the above newspaper article. The authenticity of Barkley's story rests on two strong points: 1) He was personally acquainted with Stevens, and thus had a first-hand account; and, 2) He wrote this in 1938, shortly after the events described. The "Del Rio" radio station would have been the old XERA, a high-wattage "border blaster" based just inside Mexico that reached across the U.S. into Canada from 1935-1939 (Wikipedia). (This was the predecessor of the more famous rock'n'roll station that featured Wolfman Jack.) The Stamps-Baxter Quartet, capitalizing on its popularity from the KRLD broadcasts, was naturally eager to be heard on this international stage as well (Mason 274). After 1938, when their rendition of "Farther along" had been broadcast to a national audience, the Stamps-Baxter publications began to attribute the song to W.B. Stevens. This matches the story reported by Barkley, and shows the apparent desire of Stamps-Baxter to attribute the song properly (so far as they knew the facts).

W.A. Fletcher: Strangers on a Train?

But what of the other candidates for authorship? There is a story endlessly repeated on the Internet that "Farther along" was written by a different preacher, W.A. Fletcher. The fullest version of this account is found in the Wikipedia article for "Farther along," which has been marked by another Wikipedia editor as desperately in need of citations. Fletcher is said to have written the song in 1911 while traveling between gospel meetings in Indian Territory. He was supposedly inspired by his frustration at having to leave his pregnant wife Catherine back in Texas. Because of his preaching engagements, Fletcher would miss the birth of his first child.

The popular form of this story is problematic. There was no "Indian Territory" in 1911, four years after Oklahoma was admitted to statehood. I am also suspicious of the story of Fletcher meeting J.R. Baxter and selling him "Farther along" at that time. Baxter, a native of Alabama, was still working for A.J. Showalter in the Southeastern U.S., and did not move West until the 1940s (Tribe). Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but I can find no reference to Baxter or the Showalter Music Company in Oklahoma during that era. And can anyone believe that Baxter, who was such a shrewd judge of songs, would have waited more than 25 years to publish "Farther along"?

But even a story that has become garbled and embellished (thanks again, Internet!) may be founded on real events. There was, in fact, a Holiness preacher named William A. Fletcher, who lived in Sulphur, Oklahoma, in 1910 (U.S. Census, 1910, Oklahoma). He was single at that time, but later census records reveal the following events: 1) Fletcher married a woman named Catherine, a native of Texas, and, 2) the couple had their first child in 1911 (January 1912 at the latest). This was a daughter named Willamine, born in Oklahoma (U.S. Census, 1920, Nebraska). So at least this much of the story is proved: there was a Holiness preacher named W.A. Fletcher in Oklahoma during the early 1910s, with a wife named Catherine who very likely would have spent time with her family in Texas if she were pregnant and he was on the road, and they were expecting a child in 1911. It doesn't prove that he wrote the song, of course, but it shows the story cannot be dismissed as legend.

W.E. Lindsay: Man of Mystery

In the Eureka Sacred Carols, as mentioned above, words and melody are both attributed to a W. E. Lindsay. I can find nothing about this person, though a search of the Newspaper Archive reveals that there was a Free Will Baptist preacher by that name in Ada, Oklahoma around that time, and a Methodist preacher named "W.A. Lindsey" in Prairie Grove, Arkansas. Ironically, Lindsay has the earliest documented claim (that I have found so far!) to the authorship of "Farther along", but is the most obscure of the four men who vie for that honor, and the only one without modern descendants backing his story.

W.P. Jay: The Arkansas Traveler

W.P. Jay's claim to authorship has probably been spread most by the attribution "words and music adapted from W.P. Jay" found in the 1960s folk music magazine Sing Out! ( This is interesting, but not convincing; Pete Seeger, who popularized this version of "Farther along", was not a musicologist but a performer (his musicologist father, Charles Seeger, would have been a more reliable source). The 1932 Catalog of Copyright Entries from the U.S. Copyright office, however, carries considerably more weight, and here we find a "smoking gun" that is still at least smoldering a little: "Farther along; hymn, m W. P. Jay, arr. of w and m Haldor Lillenas. (c) May 1, 1932" (Musical Compositions 1932, p. 513). This is six years prior to the Stamps-Baxter publication, and credits Jay with the music. So far as I have seen, this is the earliest copyright claimed for the song; the 1921 Eureka Sacred Carols version, shown above, has a place for a copyright at the bottom, but no date.

W. P. Jay, a preacher for the Church of the Nazarene, roved from his home state of Arkansas, through the "Arklatex" region, and as far away as Idaho in his evangelistic meetings. In a search of the Newspaper Archive I could not seem to find reference to him in the same place more than once! He also seems to have been a colorful and energetic individual who knew how to use music to augment his message. I would dearly love to hear the song titled, "Don't Use a Submarine, But Use a Flying Airship", performed in an evangelistic meeting in Ardmore, Oklahoma, during the 1940s (Daily Ardmoreite (Oklahoma), 17 October 1940, p. 8). One newspaper reporter noted that "an interesting feature of the meetings is the musical program put on by Rev. and Mrs. Jay, both of whom are talented musicians, many of whose songs are their own compositions" (Twin Falls Daily News (Idaho), 29 March 1932, p. 8). Coincidentally, the newspaper reports in an item on the same page that the Jays sang "Farther along" at a local funeral service.

The Curious Nature of Authorship

The competing claims raise an interesting question--are we sure the same man wrote both words and music? The Barkley article quoted above emphasizes the music, stating that Stevens "composed" the song while at the organ. Though many songwriters write lyrics and music together, this could also possibly describe composing a tune to existing lyrics. And though Barkley says Stevens "put his thoughts down in meter," the description of this moment of revelation is entirely focused on the power of the music. What if Fletcher (or someone else) wrote the lyrics published by Warren in 1911, and Stevens (or someone else) wrote the music that combined with these lyrics to make the gospel song we know today? (Now I really wish I could see what the Harmonic Chimes book from 1916 says about authorship!) Even so, the claims of W.E. Lindsay and W.P. Jay are on the music, which (given the statements in the Barkley article above) Stevens clearly claimed to have written.

Because of the peculiarly collaborative nature of songwriting, "writing a song" with another person is a complex question. In speaking of operas or musicals, most people think of the composer of the music first, and the lyricist as an afterthought--it's Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, even though the lyrics were written by the equally famous Stephen Sondheim. In the classical hymn genre, it is the opposite; Julian's famous dictionary is about words, not music, and the tendency to think of "hymns" as the lyrics alone is reflected structurally in sites such as Folk and popular music add the complicating factor of the performer, seen in the "as sung by" statement in the earlier Stamps-Baxter publications of "Farther along."

All this is to say that the statement "X wrote this song" (or should it be "W" in this case, since all of these men have the same first initial?) does not always mean what we think it means. The author of the lyrics could make this claim. The composer of the music could make this claim. The person who took a song that was floating around anonymously in the folk gospel repertoire, and set down the words and arranged the music in a fixed form, could make that claim to a certain extent. The person who learned the song from the same folk gospel repertoire, and popularized a certain version of it through performance, could claim it as "his" or "her" song to a certain extent. Once again, I have no doubt of the honesty of any of the competing claims about this song; but as I have found out in my own family history, even essentially true stories are often misunderstood in the process of transmission. I would be glad to hear from anyone who has further evidence to contribute toward solving this mystery!

Finally, the Song Itself

I admit that I have not always appreciated this song as much as many of my brothers and sisters do. The stanzas, at least, are complaining about our lot in this life--something I am loath to do when I consider how much more fortunate I am than most people living on this earth. I have a roof over my head, food on my table, clothes on my back, and a reasonable expectation of security in my person and property. Though I am probably considered lower middle class in the context of my own culture, I live like a king compared to most of the world, and compared to my ancestors. I am uncomfortable singing songs that cast me in the role of the poor and downtrodden.

A closer reading of the text, however, shows that the author's mind is not primarily on material hardships, but on the misfortunes of life. The first stanza compares the speaker's lot to that of the wicked, who are "never molested" or harmed, presumably by the vicissitudes of "time and chance" (Ecclesiastes 9:11). The second stanza (in the modern version of the text) speaks of the loss of loved ones, especially those who are taken from us unexpectedly soon. In the original second stanza from the earliest form of the text (see above), there is one reference to material hardships--the speaker must "go in the rain, the cold, and the snow," compared to the worldly who are "living in comfort." A following stanza in the original speaks of facing false accusations and persecution, even from family members. These thoughts emphasize the trials Christians face because of our choice to serve Jesus.

Stanza 1:
Tempted and tried, we're oft made to wonder,
Why it should be thus all the day long;
While there are others living about us,
Never molested, though in the wrong.

Before we judge these statements as mere complaining, we should remember that this was the cry of Job: "They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol" (Job 21:13). It was the accusation of Jeremiah: "Righteous are You, O LORD, when I complain to You; yet I would plead my case before You. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?" (Jeremiah 12:1). And Habakkuk was even more forward with God, saying, "Why do You make me see iniquity, and why do You idly look at wrong?" (Habakkuk 1:3a). It is an exaggeration to say that those "in the wrong" are never troubled by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; but if we find ourselves saying so, we are in the company of some righteous and faithful men. The statements of Jeremiah and Habbakkuk are really more extreme than anything in the lyrics of this song!

What is the lesson, then, of Job, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk? I believe there are two points to consider: 1) it is permissible and understandable for a faithful follower of God to sometimes feel that life is unfair; but, 2) we are generally mistaken in how we perceive that unfairness. Job was oblivious to the spiritual warfare raging over his soul, and at the end he admitted, "I have uttered what I did not understand" (Job 42:3). Jeremiah lived to see the proud and wicked of his nation overthrown. And the Lord told Habakkuk, "I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if it were told you" (Hab 1:5).

Is it wrong, then, to sing words that may reflect an imperfect understanding of God's dealing with sin, and the problem of suffering? My brothers at (an excellent and useful site!) suggest that "we as Christians living this side of the cross have the answer to that question now, and don't need to wait until we are farther along to understand why" ("Problem songs"). It is worth noting, however, that the ancient Hebrews were also given a strong word of advice on the topic: "Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb" (Psalm 37:1-2). This may not have been known to Job, but it would certainly have been in the Scriptures read by Jeremiah and Habakkuk. The problem is not knowing the answer, but emotionally accepting the answer. We know that the temporal prosperity of some of the wicked is nothing to envy, but we are "tempted and tried" to fall into this kind of thinking in spite of ourselves. We are "made to wonder" (stanza 2). I believe this is a valid understanding of "Farther along"--even though we know better than to think like this, we are sometimes tempted to do so, and for that reason we exhort one another to push on until the better day dawns when our sight will be more clear.

Farther along, we'll know all about it;
Farther along, we'll understand why.
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine;
We'll understand it all by and by.

This is not unlike the advice of David in the 37th Psalm:
Trust in the LORD, and do good;
Dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the LORD,
And He will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD;
Trust in Him, and He will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
And your justice as the noonday. 
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for Him;
Fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
Over the man who carries out evil devices!
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
(Psalm 37:3-8)
But will we "know all about it" in the life to come? We are curious by nature--God made us that way, so that we would seek to know Him (Acts 17:27). Perhaps it is natural for us to assume that part of the state of heavenly bliss will be the satisfaction of that curiosity with all the answers we have sought in this life. But will it be so? One suspects that many of the questions that trouble us now will be of little importance then. There was only one thing, in the mind of Paul, really worth knowing:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8).
For this knowledge of Christ, Paul had already sacrificed his personal accomplishments and future career as a Jewish teacher; he was currently sacrificing personal safety and comfort; and he would in time sacrifice his very life. In comparison to all else, Paul said, "But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13-14). I do not know what would be the first words to tumble from the lips of Paul, on that great day; but I suspect it would not be to question why the road had been so long that brought him there.

Whatever one's view of that question, the attitude expressed in this refrain is admirable. It recalls Paul's perspective on his own suffering, far greater than most of us will ever see:
I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day" (2 Timothy 1:12).
Paul understood what we all need to understand, and what "Farther along" tries to teach as well: our current situation, however difficult it may be, is not our final situation. There is an old story, repeated by Abraham Lincoln, but dating back to the ancient Persian philosophers:
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!
Whatever challenges we are facing in this life, they will be over soon. Some will be over very quickly; others may be with us for a lifetime; but even in the case of the latter, we still have hope for a point in the future when these trials will be over. We can say with the sons of Korah, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God" (Psalm 42:11).

Stanza 2:
When death has come and taken our loved ones,
It leaves our home so lonely and drear;
Then do we wonder why others prosper,
Living so wicked year after year.


This is one of the harshest, and most honest, stanzas we will find in a hymnal. It may not be the most Christian sentiment, but I believe one would be hard pressed to find a Christian who has not thought this once or twice. Job asked the same thing: "Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their offspring are established in their presence, and their descendants before their eyes" (Job 21:7-8). Asaph, one of David's chief musicians, explored this theme at length in the 73rd Psalm. In an interesting preface, he admits from the outset that his reasoning was faulty and even tending toward sin:
Truly God is good to Israel,
To those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
My steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
(v. 1-3)
It would have been a misstep to envy the wicked, but the incongruity of the prosperity of the wicked with the suffering of the righteous is no less maddening. Asaph describes the behavior of the wicked in detail:
For they have no pangs until death;
Their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
They are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
Violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness;
Their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
Loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
And their tongue struts through the earth.
(v. 4-9)
They seem immune to the misfortunes of life. They do everything the godly person tries not to do, and not only do they get away with it, they profit from it. The casual observer is led to conclude that wickedness pays, and godliness is a fool's choice.
Therefore his people turn back to them,
And find no fault in them.
And they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Behold, these are the wicked;
Always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
And washed my hands in innocence.
For all the day long I have been stricken
And rebuked every morning.
(v. 10-14)
The "God is dead" movement was not just a phenomenon of the 1960s. People in Asaph's time questioned whether God was there, or if He were, whether He was paying attention. Asaph's frustration is palpable. He had tried to live the right way; and this was his reward? But then his account takes a dramatic turn:
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.
But when I thought how to understand this,
It seemed to me a wearisome task,
Until I went into the sanctuary of God;
Then I discerned their end.
(v. 15-17; emphasis added, DRH)
Asaph did what every God-fearing person at the end of his or her rope should do: he went to the house of the Lord. He sought the guidance of God in worship, study, meditation, and prayer. And upon reflection, he realized that we see only part of the story in this life. Our natural inclination to envy tends to exaggerate the good things we see others enjoying, in comparison to our own. (If you do not believe there is a natural inclination toward envy, just try dividing a dessert evenly between two siblings.) And the pride of the ungodly will cause them to exaggerate as well, downplaying the negatives of their choice in lifestyle. Most of those "living so wicked year after year" are not nearly as happy as they would have you think, even when they are riding high. But of course the "end" Asaph is really talking about is something else:
Truly You set them in slippery places;
You make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
Swept away utterly by terrors!
Like a dream when one awakes,
O Lord, when You rouse yourself,
You despise them as phantoms.
(v. 18-20)
We should not rejoice in the doom of the wicked, but rather take sober warning from it (Proverbs 24:17). Knowledge of this reality helps us to keep the right perspective when we are faced with the temptations Asaph illustrates. We know the answer to the question posed in Psalm 73:11--yes, God does know, and "He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury" (Rom 2:6-8).

And when we consider the loss of a righteous loved one, especially in an untimely fashion, we can remember that the real measure of a life is not its length, but its quality. One of the saddest statements in Scripture (though darkly comical as well) is the summary of the reign of Jehoram given in the Chronicles: "Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years. He passed away, to no one's regret, and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings" (2 Chronicles 21:20; emphasis added, DRH). When the death of an individual is deeply regretted, it is because that person meant something to other people. Acts 8:2 tells us that after Stephen's stoning, "devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him (Act 8:2). They did not "grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13), but they mourned the untimely death of a beloved brother, "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5). Had Stephen not lived such a life, his loss would not have been felt so keenly.

Finally, we must consider that there are questions about providence that we simply do not have answered in this life. Not too many years after the death of Stephen, the apostle James, son of Zebedee, was martyred by the sword at the command of Herod. Seeing the pleasing effect this had on his popularity polls, the king next imprisoned Peter. No doubt Herod had the same fate planned for this apostle as well, but Peter was delivered from prison by an angel and continued his ministry for many more years. F.F. Bruce rightly called it "a mystery of divine providence" that one apostle was martyred and the other delivered. No doubt the apostle John, the surviving son of Zebedee, thought so as well. Perhaps he wondered as well why the wicked ruler who executed his brother went on living, even profiting by the act; but if John did wonder, he did not wonder long. The same 12th chapter of Acts tells us that Herod met a particularly nasty end; and between James and Herod, whose fate was the more desirable? We will always wonder why things work out the way they do, and like Peter, we sometimes ask, "Lord, what about this man?" (John 21:21). But we need to remember the answer that Jesus gave Peter: "What is that to you? Follow Me" (John 21:22).

Stanza 3:
"Faithful till death," said our loving Master,
A few more days to labor and wait;
Toils of the road will then seem as nothing,
As we sweep through the beautiful gate.


Here the lyricist quotes from Jesus' message to the church at Smyrna, one of only two of the seven churches of Asia mentioned in the Revelation to receive no criticism at all from the Lord:
I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death (Revelation 2:9-11).
It was a timely warning. The early Christian historian Eusebius relates in his Church History (4th century) the contents of a letter said to have come from the church at Smyrna, telling of a severe persecution that befell them during the 2nd century. Most famous among the martyrs of Smyrna was Polycarp, reportedly a student of the apostle John. According to the account, his fellow Christians tried to persuade him to flee the city; but when he learned that others were being tortured into giving up his whereabouts, Polycarp surrendered himself to the authorities. When the day of the trial came and the magistrate demanded that he revile Christ and swear to Caesar, Polycarp is reported to have said, "Fourscore and six years have I been serving Him, and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" Polycarp is said to have met his death by burning at the stake (Book IV, Chapter 15). For the Christians at Smyrna, "Faithful till death" did not only mean "up to the time of death," but also "even to the point of dying." God help those Christians, even today, who face such persecution; God help us Christians who do not, to show such faithfulness in our lesser trials!

Stanza 4:
When we see Jesus coming in glory,
When He comes from His home in the sky,
Then we shall meet Him in that bright mansion;
We'll understand it all by and by.


Like Job in ancient times, our modern world still faces the problem of the existence of evil, with all its attendant questions about God's providence and what it means in the lives of His followers. Unlike Job, however, we have a far better understanding of what it is all about in the end. We are "waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13). And Paul assures us that, "When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory" (Col 3:4).

From this perspective, we can look at the trials of this life and say along with that longsuffering apostle,
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed ... So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2Cr 4:8-9,16-18)
The songwriter concludes, "We'll understand it all by and by." Whether we have specific answers to specific questions about the events of this life, I do not know; but I am certain that we will understand why it was worth whatever we may have suffered to get there.

About the music:

One of the most interesting finds in the process of researching this song was the version from the Eureka Sacred Carols (Mena, Ark.: Eureka Music Pub., 1921), reproduced in the image above. This predates the J.R. Baxter arrangement by 16 years, and shows us a snapshot of at least one form of the melody and harmony prior to that better known arrangement, which has since become standard. Since the original publication of the "Farther along" text in 1911 had lyrics only, the music we know today (whenever it was composed!) was apparently passed around by ear.

The image below compares the 1921 and 1937 melodies. (I have transposed the 1937 Stamps-Baxter version to the key of A-flat major for sake of comparison, though I have most often seen it in F major.) The most obvious correspondence--so obvious it is easily overlooked!--is the rhythm, which is identical except for Baxter's occasional use of a dotted triplet (long-LONG-short) instead of even triplets. That rhythmic feature is so widely ignored in actual practice, it is hardly worth mentioning. The highlighted areas show points at which the pitches are identical between the two versions--37 notes out of 76 total, just short of half the melody. But the locations of these points of correspondence are even more important than the percentage; the versions show the most similarity at the beginnings and endings of phrases.

Even in the portions that are not identical, there are strong similarities in the directions the melody moves. In the first phrase of the refrain, for example, the 1937 Baxter version moves up one more step on "Far-ther A-" (C, E-flat, F) where the 1921 version repeats the E-flat (C, E-flat, E-flat). Both versions move down into the next pitch (on "-long"), but the 1937 version comes down from an F to an E-flat, where the 1921 version comes down from an E-flat to a C. Both versions skip down through notes of the tonic chord, and end up the same at the end of the phrase.

Another striking area of similarity is the harmony in each version. Once again I have transposed Baxter's 1937 arrangement to the same key as Lindsay's 1921 version from Eureka Sacred Carols.

Far-ther a-long
know all a-
bout it,

Far-ther a-long
Ab     (Ddim)

Cheer up my bro-
live in the

We’ll un-der-stand

all by and
The basic structure of the phrases is the same: the 1st and 3rd phrases move from A-flat to D-flat, then back; the 2nd phrase cadences to the dominant chord, E-flat; and the final phrase closes the period with a strong cadence to the tonic, A-flat. Even the differences are telling; in the 1st and 3rd phrases, the subdominant chord (D-flat) is set up by an inversion of the tonic in the 1921 version, so that the bass steps up from C to D-flat, where the 1937 version adds the 7th in the alto voice to make the Ab7 chord, leaning down into the D-flat chord. It is two different ways of accomplishing the same goal. Approaching the half cadence at the end of the 2nd phrase, the 1921 version uses a secondary dominant, Bb7, which serves to emphasize the E-flat harmony at the end of the phrase. Baxter's 1937 version instead emphasizes the final chord of the phrase by walking the bass down from the tonic to the dominant ("un-der-stand why"); but for a fleeting moment on the syllable "-stand" there is a diminished chord that provides the leading tone to the following chord, briefly suggesting the same secondary dominant harmony (Bb7) seen in the 1921 version.

The most notable difference in these harmonizations is the use of the F minor chord (submediant, or vi chord) in the 1921 version, which is not found in Baxter's version. But in the video below from the Harlem Church of Christ, you can hear this same minor harmony inserted before the endings of the stanza and of the refrain. I do not know whether this is a perpetuation of an earlier version than Baxter's, or simply a matter of singers making the same harmonic choices because they sound good. (It is my understanding that the Harlem congregation sings from Sacred Selections, which has the 1937 Baxter arrangement of this song.)

The case of "Farther along" reminds us that when it comes to older gospel music, what ends up the printed page is often just a snapshot of one person's version of the song!


Barkley, J. R. "Around about America." The Weekly Tribune (Moulton, Iowa) 5 May 1938 p. 2.

"Barney Elliott Warren." Cyberhymnal

Bruce, F. F. Commentary on the Book of the Acts. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964.

Davidson, Ellen K. "Rev. W. B. Stevens: Brief biography." Community at Large. Marceline, Mo.: Walsworth Publishing Co., 1993. Reprinted in the Schuyler County Times 16 July 2013.

Eusebius. Church History. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

"Farther along." Wikipedia
N.B. There are significant problems with this article, particularly lack of citations.

Foreman, Marilyn. "The Churches of Schuyler Co., Missouri."

"Large congregations attend revival here." Twin Falls Daily News (Idaho), 29 March 1932, p. 8.

"Life of Jacob is discussed." The Daily Ardmoreite (Oklahoma), 17 October 1940, p. 8.

Lincoln, Abraham. Address to the Wisconsin State Agriculture Society, Milwaukee, 30 September 1859.

"Many attend services for former resident." Twin Falls Daily News (Idaho), 29 March 1932, p. 8.

Mason, Richard J. "Singing people are happy people: a brief look at convention gospel music." Corners of Texas, ed. Francis Edward Abernathy. Nacogdoches, Tex.: Texas Folklore Society, 1993.

"Problem songs." ThyWordIsTruth.com

Stevens, W.B. The Best of W.B. Stevens, ed. Richard E. Payne. Kirksville, Mo.: Richard E. Payne, 2000?

"Tempted and tried, we're oft made to wonder."

Tribe, Ivan M. "J.R. Baxter Jr." Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music. New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 32.

U.S. Copyright Office. Catalog of Copyright Entries: Musical Compositions 1932.

Walker, Wayne S. "Farther Along." hymnstudiesblog.

"XERA-AM." Wikipedia

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Fairest Lord Jesus

Praise for the Lord #137

Words: Münsterisch Gesangbuch, 1677; stanzas 1-3 translated in Richard S. Willis's Church Chorals & Choir Studies, 1850; stanza 4 translated by Joseph A. Seiss, 1873

Music: CRUSADERS' HYMN, Hoffman von Fallersleben's Schlesische Volkslieder, 1842; arranged by Richard S. Willis in Church Chorals & Choir Studies, 1850

Some hymns of great quality and distinguished history have come down to us almost as museum pieces, appreciated only when we have learned to understand their style and the context of their times. They fail to make the transition from high church to low church traditions, from liturgical to non-liturgical usage, or from a specific national or denominational origin to a broader global audience. Sometimes they can be reintroduced, but it is difficult for them to reach the status of core repertoire.

"Fairest Lord Jesus" is not one of those hymns. I have heard this in congregations large and small, urban and rural; and in every context it seems to be owned and loved by the people, not as an exotic transplant, but as one of "our hymns." In the various surveys I have seen of favorite hymns, it may not make the top 10 or top 50, but fares well in a top 100 list and is certain to make the cut of anything larger. (An inherent problem in such surveys is that this text exists under two different titles; "Beautiful Savior" is another translation of the same text.) features "Fairest Lord Jesus" on its page listing the 250 most common hymns in modern hymnals. Its overall number of instances in that database is 463 (with an additional 117 instances of "Beautiful Savior"), which does not approach the 1000+ mark held by "Amazing grace" or "Old rugged cross", but is greater than the frequency of "Dear Lord and Father of mankind" and "O Master let me walk with Thee". I believe its longevity is owed to 1) a compelling, yet easily grasped message, and 2) a simple but attractive tune that is easily learned.

Münsterisch Gesangbuch p. 576. Digital copy owned
by the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Münster.
Used by permission.
The earliest known form of this hymn is "Schönster Herr Jesu," found in the Catholic hymnal titled Münsterisch Gesangbuch (Münster in Westphalen: Raesfeldt, 1677). It was introduced there without author attribution, as one of a set of three "beautiful and exceptional new songs," suggesting that it was of recent composition. It has sometimes been ascribed to the Jesuit scholar-poet Friedrich Spee (1591-1635), but without real evidence beyond its similarity in imagery to some of his devotional writing (M. Fischer "Liedkommentar" 2 n.2). Though the text has evolved considerably, the basic structure and many of the distinctive expressions we know from the English translation were present from the beginning. Following is the original text with my own rough translation:

Schönster Herr Jesu
Herrscher aller Herren
Gottes vnd Mariæ Sohn
Dich wil ich lieben
Dich wil ich ehren
Meiner Seelen Frewd vnd Wohn.        

Alle die Schönheit
Himmels vnd der Erde
Ist gefast in dir allein
Keiner sol jmmer
Lieber mir werden
Als du Jesu liebster mein.

Schame dich O sonne
Schame dich O Mone
Schämet euch jhr Sternen all
Jesus ist feiner
Jesus ist reiner
Dann die Engeln allzumahl.

Schön seindt die Blumen
Schöner seindt die Menschen
In der frischer Jugendt Zeit
Sie müssen sterben
Müssen verderben
Jesus lebt in Ewigkeit.

Er ist warhafftig
allhie gegenwertig
In dem heiligen Sacrament
Jesu dich bitt ich
Sey vns gnädig
Jetzo vnd an vnserm End.
Fairest Lord Jesus,
Lord of all Lords,
God's and Mary's Son;
You would I love,
You would I honor,
My soul's joy and home.

All of the beauty
Of heaven and the earth
Is bound up in You alone;
No other shall ever
Be better to me
Than you, my beloved Jesus.

Be ashamed, O sun!
Be ashamed, O moon!
Be ashamed, all you stars!
Jesus is finer,
Jesus is purer,
Than all the angels together.

Beautiful are the flowers,
More beautiful are the people,
In the fresh time of youth;
They must pass away,
They must perish;
Jesus lives to eternity.

He is truly
Present here
In the holy sacrament;
Jesus, I beg You,
Be to us gracious,
Now and unto our end.

The final stanza reveals a focus on the Lord's Supper that does not carry over into the modern English versions, no doubt because of its teaching of the "real presence" of Christ in the elements of the Communion. It was probably this factor that initially kept the hymn from spreading from Catholic into Protestant usage. A modernized and somewhat expanded version appeared in the Geistliches Psälterlein (1747), a Jesuit publication, but it was not until its publication in the 1842 Schleslische Volkslieder ("Silesian Folksongs") that it began its ascent into the front rank of Christian hymns (M. Fischer "Kurzkommentar").

Schönster Herr Jesu,
Herrscher aller Erden,
Gottes und Mariä Sohn!
Dich will ich lieben,
Dich will ich ehren,
meiner Seelen Freud’ und Kron’.

Schön sind die Wälder,
Noch schöner sind die Felder
In der schönen Frühlingszeit!
Jesus ist schöner,
Jesus ist reiner,
Der unser trauriges Herz erfreut!

Schön leucht der Monden,
Noch schöner leucht die Sonne
Als die Sternlein allzumal!
Jesus leucht schöner,
Jesus leucht reiner,
Als die Engel im Himmelssaal!

All’ die Schönheit
Himmels und der Erden
Ist nur gegen ihn als ein Schein!
Keiner auf Erden
Uns lieber kann werden,
Als der schönste Jesus mein!

Jesus ist wahrhaftig
Hoch von uns geliebet,
Jesus ist wahrhaftig hoch gebenedeit!
Jesus, wir bitten dich,
Sei uns gnädig
Bis an unsre letzte Zeit.       
Fairest lord Jesus,
Lord of all the earth,
God's and Mary's Son!
You would I love,
You would I honor,
My soul's joy and crown.

Fair are the woodlands,
Fairer still the meadows,
In the beautiful springtime!
Jesus is fairer,
Jesus is purer,
Who cheers our woeful heart!

Fair shines the moon,
Fairer still shines the sun,
Than all the little stars together!
Jesus shines fairer,
Jesus shines purer,
Than all the angels in the heavens!

All the beauty
Of the heavens and the earth
Compared to Him is just a show!
No one on earth
Could be better to us
Than my fairest Jesus!

Jesus is truly
Highly beloved by us,
Jesus is truly highly blessed!
Jesus, we beg You,
Be gracious to us,
Now and unto our last days.

Here the references to the Lord's Supper are removed, but it is not this bit of editorial ecumenicizing alone that led to the booming popularity of the hymn. Michael Fischer points out that in this case, a hymn born of 17th-century Pietism was reinterpreted through the lens of 19th-century Romantic nature-mysticism ("Liedkommentar" 7). Both points of view share the deeply personal and breathlessly emotional approach to worship evident in this hymn; but where the original Pietist author meant to say, "Look at all the beauty of nature! Put it all together, and Jesus is even more wonderful!", I am afraid the 19th-century Romantics were all too literally lost in the woods. Still, the burgeoning interest in folk literature during the 19th century--also the era of the Grimm Brothers--helped to revive many such gems of vernacular devotional poetry.

August Heinrich Hoffman von Fallersleben's Schleisische Volkslieder was just such an effort. Hoffman, best known as the author of Das Lied der Deutschen (from which both the past and present German anthems derive), was a language professor and librarian of the University of Breslau (modern Wrocław) during the 1830s. A liberal democrat (in the best sense of those words!), he was part of a new generation of scholars that saw value in preserving and studying the art and literature of the common people (Wikipedia). According to the preface of his Silesian collection, he began gathering folk songs of that region while visiting a friend in the country. Intrigued by the results, he mobilized students in a local seminary to collect songs from their home villages, and sought contributions via the newspapers (Schleisische Volkslieder iii-iv). Hoffman's version of "Schönster Herr Jesu" was sent to him by Chaplain Rupprecht of the village of Reyersdorf (Radochów) in the county of Glatz, today the Kłodzki district of Poland (M. Fischer "Liedkommentar" 8 n26).

The next stop in this text's meandering journey into the modern English repertoire was the translation included by Richard Storrs Willis in his Church Chorals and Choir Studies. Willis (1819-1900) was a composer, though better known as a music critic, who grew up in Boston during the ascent of Lowell Mason and the "better music" movement. Like his contemporary, William Bradbury, Willis studied music at the famed Leipzig Conservatory. And though the two men moved in very different circles (Willis became a respected classical music critic, and Bradbury a prominent writer and publisher of gospel songs), they shared the view that American church music would be improved through the adoption and imitation of the best European models (Pruett). In the preface to the Church Chorals collection, Willis held up the Lutheran tradition as ideal: art music for the choir, but simple and straightforward hymns for the congregation, and plenty of them (Willis 15-16). In the section of "Chorals" (to avoid confusion, we typically spell this "chorales" today), Willis mixed familiar tunes from the English hymn tradition with adaptations from classical composers and hymn tunes borrowed from other countries--one of which was "Fairest Lord Jesus."

Willis provided Hoffmann's text alongside his own translation, so his source is clear; aside from a few changes of order of lines (noted below in the discussion of the individual stanzas) the text is identical. What is not clear is Willis's source for the 12th century date which he ascribes to this hymn, as well as for this note printed below the hymn:  
This hymn, to which the harmony has been added, was lately discovered in Westphalia. According to the traditionary [sic, DRH] text by which it is accompanied, it was wont to be sung by the German knights on their way to Jerusalem. . . . (Willis 193)
Now, this hymn did appear so far as we know in Westphalia during the 17th century, in the aforementioned Münsterisch Gesangbuch; but its "late discovery" by Hoffmann was in Silesia, rather farther to the east. Willis seems either to have confused the facts or to have relied on a source that was itself confused.

But where did this idea originate, that "Schönster Herr Jesu" was connected with the Crusades? It was believed by no less an authority than Philip Schaff, author of the eight-volume History of the Christian Church. In 1852 he wrote a brief article on the hymn, in which he said in part:
It is an old German pilgrim- and pilgrimage-song, probably from the twelfth or thirteenth century, and is said to have been sung by the crusaders and pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. It perpetuated itself in Silesia through a living tradition, and appeared for the first time in print in the Schlesischen Volksliedern . . . compiled by Hoffmann von Fallersleben and Ernst Richter, Leipzig, 1842, but it first became generally known in Christian circles in 1849 through the Volksblatt of Nathusius. From that time on, because of its genuine folk-like simplicity, Christian earnestness, and wonderfully appealing melody, it has found an extraordinarily rapid acceptance into the German consciousness, and travels with a magical attraction from mouth to mouth (Schaff 229).
Philip Schaff was of course one of the most famous Christian scholars of modern times, whose works remain on the shelves of our libraries to this day; but in this instance he did not speak from the best evidence. He seems to have known it himself--note that he immediately hedges the statement with "probably" and "it is said to have been . . . ." It is also interesting that Schaff, like Willis before him, cites no source for his information. Hoffman's publication in 1842 gave no hint of the hymn's origins; if there were such a major discovery in the intervening 10 years, why not name the scholar involved? Instead Schaff points to the hymn's publication in 1849, in the Volksblatt (People's journal) of Quedlinburg, then edited by Philipp von Nathusius. Unfortunately I have been unable to access this journal, and cannot determine if Nathusius was the source (or one source) of the legend.

One cannot underestimate the power of Romantic symbolism during the heady years of the middle 19th century. The idealized Crusader knight represented strength and unity in pursuit of a higher purpose. For some, it was a political purpose, such as the reunification of Germany sought by the revolutionaries of 1848. For others it was a spiritual purpose, a desire to return to an era in which the Christian faith unified the Western nations, and was unified within itself. Schaff himself was heavily involved in ecumenical efforts, and to some extent shared the Oxford Movement's interest in the revival of pre-Reformation Christianity. The end of Schaff's article on "Schönster Herr Jesu" is rather revealing of his desire for this origins story to be true:
Many readers may be surprised to hear, from the time of the Crusades, such a lovely testimony of fervent love for Christ; and we recommend it especially to all those who still at the present day, despite all the progress of historical research, find nothing in the Middle Ages but papist antichristianity, darkness and superstition (Schaff 229).
But viewed in the cold light of investigative scholarship, the claims of a medieval origin simply do not hold up. There was significant skepticism among hymnologists and musicologists from a very early date. Albert Fischer noted in his Kirchenlieder-Lexicon (1878) that there was simply no evidence of "Schönster Herr Jesu" prior to the 17th century, despite the considerable scholarship that had been done (even by 1878) on the history of early German hymns (A. Fischer 240). His observation holds true today. In 1908 Friedrich Jehle, in his hymnology column for Philip Spitta's Monatsschrift für Gottesdienst und kirchliche Kunst, lamented the constant repetition of this unfounded provenance: "But even though the inaccuracy of the above information [on the origin of the hymn, DRH] is demonstrated, it will be disseminated all over again" (Jehle 251). If only Jehle could have anticipated the Internet! To these early objectors I add only the summary judgment of Julian: "For these statements there does not seem to be the shadow of foundation" (Julian 1016).

Besides the lack of positive evidence, there is an internal reason for questioning this hymn's origin as a Crusaders' pilgrimage song. The earliest documented sources of the text, from the 1600s through the 1700s, show it was used as a communion hymn; and though it is understandable that a communion hymn could be whittled down to a more generic and less denominationally specific praise hymn, it is hard to believe that it started out as a pilgrimage hymn, then became a communion hymn, then morphed back into its prior form.

Though Willis's 1850 publication of this hymn was its first introduction to the English-speaking public in the U.S., the original German version was also well known on these shores through the numerous hymnals published here by the wave of immigrants that arrived during the 19th century. The children and grandchildren of these German immigrants, however, began to publish English-language hymnals, often beginning with English-language Sunday School songbooks. In 1873 the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America (later the United Lutheran Church in America) published the Sunday School Book, which introduced a new English version of "Schönster Herr Jesu," translated by Joseph A. Seiss as "Beautiful Savior" ( Though this translation is less common than "Fairest Lord Jesus," it received a great deal of notoriety in the 20th century through the gorgeous a cappella arrangement by F. Melius Christiansen, the signature piece of his St. Olaf's Choir (St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota). The first stanza of "Beautiful Savior" is now found at the close of "Fairest Lord Jesus" in some hymnals, even though it is essentially a repetition of the first stanza in different words!

"Fair are the woodlands," indeed! Near Radochów (German: Reyersdorf), Poland,
the village from which Hoffman's version of "Fairest Lord Jesus" was collected.
 Photo by Bjoern Hoernitz, Wikimedia Commons, used by Creative Commons license. 

Stanza 1:
Fairest Lord Jesus! Ruler of all nature,
O Thou of God and man the Son!
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor,
Thou, my soul's Glory, Joy, and Crown!

What did Jesus look like? A man once proposed to me that Jesus must have had predominantly African physical traits; and though his Scriptural arguments did not strike me as convincing, I readily agreed that Jesus probably resembled an Ethiopian or Egyptian far more than He resembled my own Northern European ancestors! But if Scripture tells us anything about Jesus' physical appearance, it is that it was unremarkable and unimportant. The fact that Judas had to point Him out to the soldiers who came to arrest Him, seems to indicate that He was a rather average-looking Galilean Jew. In fact, His lack of any particular physical attractiveness was predicted in Isaiah 53:2, "He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him."

And yet He is our "fairest Lord Jesus," the most beautiful of all who ever lived. Peter gave us a clue to what kind of beauty this is, when he advised us not to pay so much attention to our own outward attractiveness, but rather to "let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious (1 Peter 3:4)." When it came to the "hidden person of the heart," this average-looking Man of Galilee was like "light shining in the darkness" (John 1:5). His beauty shone in His words--the beatitudes, the parables, the simple but profound answers, the towering moral teachings that challenge and inspire even those who do not accept Him as Savior--so that even His bewildered opponents had to say, "No one ever spoke like this man!" (John 7:46). His beauty shone in His actions--the gentle touch for the outcasts of society, the respect shown to women, the countless acts of healing, the righteous fury that drove out the moneychangers--until John could only say, "And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25).

The first stanza of this hymn, having introduced this wonderful subject, declares our intention to render all "glory and honor" to the One who is the fairest of all who ever lived. He is to be worshiped, as well, because He is "Ruler of all nature." The original text from 1677 was "Herrscher aller Herren," or "Lord of Lords." By the time of Hoffman's 1842 publication it had evolved to the similar-sounding "Herrscher aller Erden," "Lord of all the earth," which also prefigures the nature imagery in the following stanzas. Both expressions are eminently appropriate. Jesus is "King of Kings, and Lord of Lords" (Revelation 19:16), who holds "all authority . . . in heaven and on earth" (Matthew 28:18). He has an additional claim upon this physical creation:
For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist (Col 1:16-17).
The second line of this stanza, "O Thou of God and man the Son," was originally, "Gottes und Mariae Sohn," literally, "God's and Mary's Son." Perhaps this expression was too "Catholic-sounding" for the translator's majority-Protestant readership, or perhaps he could not find a better way to fit it into English words, but it is certainly a true factual statement either way. The wonder of the Incarnation is starkly presented, in a fashion similar to John's understated, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). This Lord of Creation, the fairest of all, is the Son of God and yet is one of us.
Who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:6-11).
That is what this stanza tells us to do, giving voice to our desires: "Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor." There is a subtlety in the original German that does not come across as well in the English: "Dich will ich lieben, dich will ich ehren" means literally, "You I want to love, You I want to honor." The German "will" is a desire to do something in the present; the English "will" is a determination to do something in the future. In this case, however, the difference is immaterial; we mean both!

We desire express our love and respect to Jesus because He is the "soul's glory, joy and crown." The oldest German text reads "Freud' und Wohn," literally, "joy and home," but over the centuries it became "Freud' und Kron'," which is the source of the English translation. "Joy" is a concept associated with Jesus and taught by Him throughout the gospel accounts. His birth was announced as "good tidings of great joy" (Luke 2:10). His resurrection filled the disciples with "fear and great joy" (Matthew 28:8). Christ is himself the reason for and source of joy: "These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:11). Likewise Jesus is the source of all the glory of God that we can comprehend, for in the Son of God "we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). His glory can only be claimed as our glory, however, when we acknowledge the supremacy of this truth:
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,
Let not the mighty man glory in his might,
Nor let the rich man glory in his riches;
But let him who glories glory in this,
That he understands and knows Me,
That I am the LORD . . .
(Jeremiah 9:23-24a).
The knowledge of the glory of Christ is the crown for which we strive. There are many crowns, of course, literal and figurative, for which people strive in this world. Paul said, "Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown (1 Corinthians 9:25). And though Paul spoke of the literal "crowns" or laurels given in the Greek and Roman athletic games, he might just as well be speaking of all the perishable glories and achievements for which many people strive in this life. But the knowledge of Christ is the "glory, joy and crown" that will never fade away. As Isaiah prophesied, "In that day the LORD of Hosts will be a crown of glory, and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of His people (Isaiah 28:5).

Stanza 2:
Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands,
Robed in the blooming garb of spring;
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer,
Who makes the woeful heart to sing.

The succeeding stanzas follow a simple thought: Imagine the most beautiful things in earth and heaven--Jesus is more beautiful. Friedrich Spee, who has been suggested as the possible author of this hymn, left the following devotional commentary on the Lord's Supper which is certainly in the same spirit:
Picture to yourself, as if this entire world, as many thousands of miles far and wide as it is, were all a sparkling crystal, or diamond, if you will, which is the most costly of gems. Also, that all the grass and herbs of the earth were all silver, and all trees and woods in the entire world were gold, and all waters, seas, rivers, brooks, and fountains, were nothing but choice pearls. Also, that the whole sky were a single shining sapphire, and all the stars nothing but glowing carbuncles.
O God, how could there be such an inexpressible and incomprehensible treasure and wealth? Let one think on this a little, and contemplate this beautiful spectacle. And afterward, remember that the holy and most high Sacrament is just such a costly heavens and earth, because it contains in itself God, and all that is. (Friedrich Spee, from the Güldenes Tugend-Buch, 17th century; quoted in M. Fischer, "Liedkommentar").
Though I certainly regard the elements of the Communion in a different fashion, I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of Spee's sentiment!

This stanza seems to originate from 4th stanza of the earliest German version of this hymn, which expresses the thought: "Fair are the flowers, / Fairer still the people / In the fresh bloom of youth!" The original goes on to point out the evanescence of both flowers and youth, reflecting on the truth of Isaiah 40:6-8, "All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field . . . but the word of our God will stand forever." The beauty of Jesus Christ, of course, is eternal and changeless. Over the years, however, this stanza evolved into a simple comparison of the beauties of the flowers, fields, and woods to that of Christ. The image of flowers remained in the reference to the meadows "robed in the blooming garb of spring," as the folk tradition rewrote the original "Jugendzeit" ("time of youth") into "Frühlingszeit" ("time of spring").

There was also a slight alteration when this stanza was translated into English, transposing the order of "woodlands" and "meadows"; it should have been, more literally, "Fair are the woodlands, fairer still the meadows / Robed in the blooming garb of spring." No doubt the second line refers to the beautiful wildflowers that sprinkle the fields and roadsides in the springtime; they are free gifts from God, yet "even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these" (Matthew 6:29). In the same way, "the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many" (Rom 5:15), far surpassing any other sacrifice that could have been made, and so far outstripping the "cunningly devised fables" invented by men for their own salvation, as to beggar comparison (2 Peter 1:16). But just as we often overlook the beauty of the wildflowers along the roadside, many pass by that free gift of grace without a second thought, or take it for granted once they have secured it.

The stanza concludes by telling us that Jesus "makes the woeful heart to sing." He promises comfort to the mourner (Matthew 5:4), and rest to the weary (Matthew 11:28). When we think we will never sing again, He shows us that we can and will. King David was a man who saw tragedy and setbacks throughout his life, and he understood this principle when he wrote,
I waited patiently for the LORD;
He inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
Out of the miry bog,
And set my feet upon a rock,
Making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
A song of praise to our God.
(Psa 40:1-3a)
The wildflowers in springtime are a cause for joy, and lift my spirits every year; but Jesus is with me all the year round, giving me new reasons to sing every day. It is a blessing, too, that God placed a direct line from the voice to the heart; sometimes joy in the heart overflows in song, but sometimes we have to reverse the direction and fill the heart with joy from singing! This hymn itself is a powerful antidote to the melancholy that some of us struggle with, reminding us of simple truths that last.

Klatschmohnen (poppies) near Wojbórz (German: Gabersdorf), Poland, in the Kłodzki
(Glatz) district, from which the 1842 version of "Fairest Lord Jesus" was collected.
Photo by Bjoern Hoernitz, Wikimedia Commons, used by Creative Commons license. 

Stanza 3:
Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight,
And all the twinkling starry host;
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer,
Than all the angels heaven can boast.

In this stanza as well, the original hymn was slightly rearranged in translation. The German lyrics from 1842 read, "Fair is the moonlight, fairer still the sunshine," progressing from the lesser to the greater. (I remember wondering about this as a child--why would someone think the moonlight was more beautiful than sunshine?) But it really is no matter, because Jesus outshines them all. The oldest German text presents this idea even more forcefully: "Schäme dich, O Sonne! Schäme dich, O Mond!" (Literally, "Shame on you!") Compared to the Light of the World (John 8:12), they are insignificant. The "inconstant moon," as Juliet called it, has long been a metaphor for changeableness because of its cycle of phases. In modern times we have learned that the output of the sun is not as constant as was once thought, but actually varies considerably over time. By contrast, we put our trust in the One "with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" (James 1:17).

"All the twinkling starry host" is a number that long ago passed the ability of our minds to grasp, but recent research by Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University suggests that the current count of 100 sextillion might be low. His estimate runs to 300 sextillion, or, 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. His revision is an attempt to correct the way previous estimates accounted for the number of stars in certain types of galaxies; using the Keck observatory in Hawaii, Van Dokkum determined that the elliptical galaxies have "10 to 20 times" more stars than previously thought. Astronomer Richard Ellis of Cal Tech said that Van Dokkum's findings are stirring up current thinking in astronomy "like a cat among pigeons." He notes dryly that perhaps "the universe is more complicated than we think" (Borenstein).

Yes, it is, and in more ways than we think. We should remember that as astonishing as these things are--and I am always glad to learn more about them, to the extent that I can understand them--"the secret things belong to God" (Deuteronomy 29:29). Augustine of Hippo summed up our frustration and admiration thus, in his Confessions, book 1, chapter 3:
Since, then, Thou dost fill the heaven and earth, do they contain Thee? Or, dost Thou fill and overflow them, because they cannot contain Thee? And where dost Thou pour out what remains of Thee after heaven and earth are full? Or, indeed, is there no need that Thou, who dost contain all things, shouldst be contained by any, since those things which Thou dost fill, Thou fillest by containing them? 
For the vessels which Thou dost fill do not confine Thee, since even if they were broken, Thou wouldst not be poured out. And, when Thou art poured out on us, Thou art not thereby brought down; rather, we are uplifted. Thou art not scattered; rather, Thou dost gather us together.
But when Thou dost fill all things, dost Thou fill them with Thy whole being? Or, since not even all things together could contain Thee altogether, does any one thing contain a single part, and do all things contain that same part at the same time? Do singulars contain Thee singly? Do greater things contain more of Thee, and smaller things less? Or, is it not rather that Thou art wholly present everywhere, yet in such a way that nothing contains Thee wholly?
To all this I can only say, "Amen. I don't understand Him either." Augustine was trying to grasp the magnitude of God's works, with the scientific and philosophical tools of his day, and we do no better with ours. All I know is that even if we really were able to comprehend this physical universe, God is so much greater that it would not even be a first step in truly understanding His nature. We know Him to the extent that He has revealed himself to us. And it is in Jesus Christ that He has most fully revealed himself, and has drawn us to Him. There is the even greater mystery, that surpasses all 300 sextillion (or more?) of the "twinkling starry host." That is a mighty big number; but how much more incomprehensible is "the breadth and length and height and depth" of "the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge!" (Ephesians 3:18-19).

Image from the Hubble telescope's XDF (Extreme Deep Field) study, the farthest
visible-light view into deep space ever undertaken. Public domain photo from NASA.

Stanza 4:

Beautiful Savior! Lord of the nations!
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, praise, adoration,
Now and forevermore be Thine!

In many hymnals this stanza concludes "Fairest Lord Jesus," though it is actually the first stanza again, here taken from the translation by Joseph A. Seiss. "Lord of the nations" perhaps harks back to the original "Herrscher aller Herren" ("Lord of Lords") in the earliest German text, reminding us of Jesus' authority over humanity--over our souls--and not just over the physical realm. "Son of God and Son of Man" is parallel to the other translation's "O Thou of God and man the Son," but ties more directly into specific Scriptural expressions. Jesus is the Son of God, and claimed to be so while on this earth (John 10:36); but He referred to himself more often by the latter expression, "Son of Man" (John 13:31). Of course, any of us could claim the latter title in a simply literal sense; David used it in the same fashion in Psalm 8:3-4,
When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have set in place;
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
But when the Son of God came to this earth and put on this mortal flesh, He took up that humble name "Son of Man" and gave it a new dignity. He came to be the new Adam (Romans 5:14), and to make us "new creatures" (2 Corinthians 5:17), the people God intends for us to be. The stanza ends in a declaration of the intent to praise and honor Jesus because of this wonderful gift, and reads very much like the doxology at the end of Jude: "To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever" (Jude 25).

About the music:

Unlike most older hymn texts, "Fairest Lord Jesus" comes down to us with words and music already put together. There are two different tunes associated with the hymn, each of which is associated with a specific stage in the hymn's history; but seldom if ever will it be found in a hymnal set to any other tunes besides these two. The earlier tune is less familiar to the general hymn repertoire, because it dates from the era in which this text was used exclusively in the German Catholic tradition. Usually designated today as SCHÖNSTER HERR JESU, this tune goes back to the earliest appearance of the hymn, the Münsterisch Gesangbuch (M. Fischer). (The digital copy of this hymnal provided by the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Münster is from the words-only edition, but there was a music edition as well--the last copy of which was lost during the wars of the 20th century--also dating from 1677.) The video below reveals the haunting beauty of this melody, which is much of a piece with the Pietist hymns of the 17th century.

The more familiar tune, known by the unfortunately inaccurate title CRUSADER'S HYMN, has not been found so far in any source prior to its 1842 publication in Hoffman's Schleslische Volkslieder. The tune is also sometimes called ST. ELIZABETH becuase of its use in Franz Liszt's 1862 oratorio Legend of St. Elizabeth, where it is featured in the "March of the Crusaders". Liszt's use of the tune in this context does not lend any support to the supposed Medieval origin of the hymn; by 1862, much of the public had already accepted this association as fact, and Liszt would never have let historical authenticity get in the way of good drama anyway.

Hearing this tune with the German lyrics, it is easy understand how this hymn became so popular, so quickly. It simply sings well, and has been popular with the numerous choral groups in German-speaking lands ever since. The video below is the group Chorioses, singing at the Ludwigskirchen in Saarbrücken.

It is probably fruitless, of course, to try to define what makes any particular melody beautiful; but there are certain characteristics of this tune that are common to many such timeless folk melodies, and are perhaps helpful to note.

To begin with, the rhythms are simple and repetitive, yet not monotonous. Only three different note lengths are used: half notes and quarter notes make up most of the tune, but two half notes and a whole note are found at the ends of phrases B and D, the midpoint and ending. The slowing to longer note values at those two points gives gentle emphasis to the periodic structure of the tune, with a half cadence ending phrase B and an authentic cadence ending phrase D. Within phrases A and C, there is a continual reference to the basic rhythm:

This rhythm goes together with a particular melodic shape, seen in subphrase a1 above ("Fair-est Lord Je-sus"). Though this motive is sometimes varied at its beginning (repeated notes in subphrases a1 & a2, step up and back down in subphrases c1 & c2), the ending is always the same shape: leap down a 3rd, then step back up.

On the larger scale, this melodic idea is the basis of phrase A, stated once (subphrase a1) and then sequenced up a 3rd (subphrase a2). Phrase B begins another 3rd higher, and starts with the same rhythm as before, then breaks away from the sequence with a leap up to the highest note of the melody. After this dramatic high point, phrase B winds down with a heavily emphasized descending line to rest on G, implying a half cadence (conclusion of the phrase on the dominant chord, C-E-G).

Phrase C begins on the same note as does phrase B, but then returns to a slightly changed version of the basic melodic idea from phrase A. Phrase C also sequences down by step, from subphrase c1 to subphrase c2. Phrase D, like the corresponding phrase B, is made of contrasting material and ends with a slow descent, this time coming to rest on F for an authentic cadence (return to the tonic chord of the key, F-A-C).


"August Heinrich Hoffman von Fallersleben." Wikipedia. Viewed 20 November 2013.

Augustine. Confessions, translated by Albert C. Outler. Wikisource edition.

"Beautiful Savior."

Borenstein, Seth. "Number of stars in the universe could be 300 sextillion, triple the amount scientists previously though." Huffington Post 1 December 2010.

Fischer, Albert Friedrich Wilhelm. Kirchenlieder-Lexikon. Gotha: Friedrich Andrea Perthes, 1878.

Fischer, Michael. "Schönster Herr Jesu." Freiburger Anthologie: Lyrik und Lied

Jehle, Friedrich. "Hymnologisches." Monatsschrift für Gottesdienst und kirchliche Kunst 13:8/9 (Aug.-Sep. 1908): 244-254.

Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology. London: J. Murray, 1891.

Münsterisch Gesangbuch (Münster in Westphalen : Raesfeldt, 1677). Digital edition by Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Münster, 2012.

Pruett, Laura Moore. "Willis, Richard Storrs." Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press, viewed 21 November 2013.

Schaff, Philip. "Ein altdeutsches Pilgerlied." Der Deutsche Kirchenfreund 5:6 (June 1852) 229-230
***A rather careless English translation is given in The Guardian (Philadelphia) 20:3 (March 1869) 96-97.

Schlesische Volkslieder mit Melodien, ed. Hoffmann von Fallersleben and Ernst Richter. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1842.

"SCHÖNSTER HERR JESU" (tune page).

Shriver, George H. "Schaff, Philip." American National Biography Online, Feb. 2000.

Willis, Richard Storrs. Church Chorals and Choir Studies. New York: Clark, Austin & Smith, 1850.